The Kapok tree is an emergent tree of the tropical rainforests, and is often described as majestic. It can grow to a height of 150 feet or more, towering over other trees in the rainforest. Originally a native to South America it now has spread to the primary rainforests of West Africa, and the Southeast Asian rainforests of the Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian archipelago.
The straight trunks are cylindrical, smooth and gray in color, and can reach a diameter of 9 feet. Large spines protrude from the trunk to discourage damage to the trunk. Thin, plank type buttresses stabilize the giant and can extend to 30 feet. The wood is a pinkish white to ashy brown in color, with a straight grain. The branches grow in horizontal tiers, and spread widely.
The crown has an open umbrella shape. Many plants and animals grow and live in the branches of the kapok tree. Birds nest in it, and mammals use the huge branches as highways. Frogs breed in the pools of water that collect in the bromeliads.
Kapoks are drought deciduous. This means they shed most or all of their leaves during the tropical dry season. The dry season occurs during the northern hemisphere winter. The leaves are palmate and compound. The 5-9 leaflets are 7-8 cm long and 1-3.5 cm wide. Flowers usually open before the leaves appear, and are clustered on small, new branches. The 5 petals of a flower are about 2.5 cm long and are a creamy white or pale pink in color. Their odor is unpleasant, but is probably meant to attract the bats that pollinate them.
The brown seeds are round like peas and are found in pods. The pods are woody, smooth and pendulous, with a light green color. They will burst open while still on the tree after the leaves have fallen. Inside a whitish cotton like fiber surrounds the brown seeds. These are born away on the wind.
Most emergent trees will have wind borne seeds because they rise above the stagnant air of the rainforest and can take advantage of the breezes which blow there.
Fruit bearing plants close to the forest floor rely on animals to eat and disperse their seeds, which will fall to the ground when ripe, and which are normally covered with a thick, appetizing pulp.
In many places the straight trunks of the kapok tree are used to make dugout canoes. The white, fluffy seed covering is used in pillows and mattresses. Since it is buoyant and water resistant it is often used in flotation devices and padding. The seeds, leaves, bark and resin have been used to treat dysentery, fever, asthma, and kidney disease. In Mayan myths the kapok tree was sacred. They believed that the souls of the dead would climb up into the branches which reached into heaven.
The kapok tree is widely spread around the world and occupies an important niche in the ecosystem of a rainforest. Emergent trees like the kapok rise above the canopy of the rainforest and provide a home for plants dependent on sunlight. Their branches provide a habitat for countless epiphytes, which provide food and shelter for many types or animals. They allow animals to move around the rainforest without coming down to the ground. Monkeys who venture out to the tops of emergent trees are easy prey for eagles.
There is no status on the kapok tree. Its timber is desirable because of the great length of its trunks, the beautiful color of its wood, and its straight grain. People of the rainforest have many uses for the kapok tree. As with many desirable things, too many people may want to exploit the kapok tree and put its future in jeopardy.
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